Thursday, November 29, 2012

Medievalist RPG Campaign Types

Medieval Hack has gone and got itself a new working name, Feudal Anarchy, a title ripped from recent academic debates that have buried the idea of a stable, dullish thing called “feudalism”. (We are lining up with the more gameable strain that emphasizes the chaotic mafia-like view of how things were likely run in the High Middle Ages).

Since those of us working on the game primarily play old school D&D-like campaigns, quite naturally the game has evolved in directions that support campaigns with some of those elements. Emphasis on the “some” since the design frame of the game has some departure points–fewer and more mythical powerful monsters, more limited site-based exploration, a greater emphasis on the PCs role and station in society etc.--from that style of play.

Which naturally leads us to be thinking a lot more intentionally about how we can get the high-player agency, dangerous, non-linear “sandboxy” elements while keeping the game's more focused flavor. And that means trying to wrap our heads around different kinds of campaigns for Feudal Anarchy--and how to support them in the rules.

Some examples:
Local Sandbox. The players are mostly assumed to have their adventures in a small, bounded sandbox say a barony, county, or other region generally walkable in a few days or a single week. The campaign dynamics revolve around a mix of news hooks, site-based exploration, and to a greater degree than some other fantasy games a web of personal relationships. This kind of sandbox thrives on small details and is thus generally smaller and more bounded geographically than most fantasy game campaigns. (To date both Ulfland and Evan's Cocanha playtest campaigns are examples of this kind of campaign).

The random fief/realm generator can spit out counties, earldoms, manors, towns, monasteries, megalith, weathered ruins, etc to help speed or guide the creation process. We have also developed a subsystem to quickly generate the broad brushstrokes of a big cast of NPCs--and their broader relationship web (who hates who, whose plotting against what, etc). We still need a system to generate period-appropriate events en masse.

The Roadshow. This is a sandbox mode where the players are wandering Europe. The game hardwires certain non-linear incentives (primarily in the Magic chapter) to getting to other places: gaining new knowledge of the “magical” powers of different saints at pilgrimage sites, shrines, cathedrals, etc; finding new demons and black magical knowledge; and hunting rare herbs and alchemical components. The characters are mostly footloose for various period-appropriate reasons (perhaps they are on pilgrimage, fleeing serfdom, or on a long circuitous trip to a distant city) with various adventures along the way.

Warband. Somewhat similar to above in that it assumes a high degree of roving (can in fact be combined like all these modes). In this case the PCs lead (or are part of larger NPC force) a free company, bandit band, or other warband. A more combat oriented game with copious usage of the mass battle, siege and other rules. We are developing a special set of rules to handle small battle combats without miniatures (and are more interactive and less abstract than the mass battle rules). Also special rules for resource management and retinues in general.

Marco Polo. More trading (perhaps with some exploration) focused campaign that combines elements of above. The players could have a home town/port that they have local adventures on but play is mostly focused on turning profits on a grand circuit. Simple long distance and commodity trade system and a mishaps table combined with some of the warband and roadshow mechanics will support this.

Off to the Crusade. Traveling to the Crusades in the Levant was a long, arduous journey often filled with much turmoil and chaos—i.e. great gaming material. Both the land route through Central Europe, the Balkans, Byzantine Empire, etc. and the sea route through the hotly contested Mediterranean (with ports of call along the way) present enormous adventuring opportunities.

This type of campaign could essentially be a mix of both the Road Show and Warband with the possibility of a final climatic phase using the Abstract Mass Battle Rules we have currently for the game. Deus Vult.

Of course like all categorizations of things that tend to be messy and evolve on their own (human that is) the different sandboxes here can overlap, vary in specific character or even be phases in a campaign's evolution as players' goals/desires change.

Thoughts, oh peanut gallery? Any suggestions for different categories or supporting mechanics? Things you'd like to see or just plain don't like in there?  


  1. Might already be in what you mean by Warband, but a mix of Warband and Local Sandbox for the back-and-forth fighting in Italy or a little corner of the Hundred Years War (or a little corner of the Thirty Years War for that matter).

    What you've got right now looks really, really good. What I'm most interested in is good ways for representing and tracking personalities, resources, and relationships of the movers-and-shakers.

    1. Thanks, it's been a very gratifying project--now whether we can nail it all down and get it published is a whole other thing (though we have a lot done in a very short amount of time).

      I have a section on generating large numbers of NPCs and their inter-relationships as that's a particular challenge for me. There's still some holes in it, but we it has a number of simple charts like this:

      The Tangled Web of NPC Relations
      Roll d100
      01-25 Strong mutual friendship

      26-35 Commercial enterprise
      36-40 Vows to murder
      41-50 Majorly plotting against
      51-55 Vows to humiliate or injure
      56-60 Owes monetary debt
      61-65 Owes debt of honor/major favor
      66-70 Has a legal dispute
      71-75 Casually scheming against
      76-80 Unrequitedly loves
      81-85 Secretly courtly/extramarital love affair
      86-90 Publicly in love with
      91-95 Shares a great secret
      96-00 Roll Twice (ignoring further results)

      The target (pick or create appropriate NPC)
      Roll a d100
      01-10 a distant person of lesser station
      11-25 a local person of lesser station
      26-60 a local peer or close neighbor
      61-75 family member
      75-83 a distant person of greater station
      84-94 a local person of greater station
      95-00 one of the PCs

  2. Looks gorgeous. The one thing I'd consider is an actual "Deus Vult" dial that lets people run more-or-less allegorical quests and encounters, turn clerical powers on or off, etc. Basically mechanics for running divine/infernal/pagan/faerie dynamics as NPC forces, freeing up the DM for more important business.

    1. I'm so going to run off and do a draft of that, great suggestion.

      Tangentially related, it's been amusing watching the playtest players play more or less pious catholics calling on saints and the like, all the while also acting like the same old D&D murderhobos (well a bit more rooted but you get the idea). The tension likely works out to some degree of historical accuracy.

    2. Oh, yes. Medieval Europeans were outstanding at compartmentalizing their religion and their actions.

    3. Awesome. No idea how it would work, to be honest, but it would be great to be able to drop your "vagrants tuer" into Grail Quest country, much less answer more burning in-game questions about why & where they get smit or not.

  3. One campaign I thought of, which is probably a subtype of the Local Sandbox, is a Robin Hood-esque guerrilla movement. This could be applied to a unpopular regent/usurper, or an invading army (Norman invasion), or rebellion. Historical and literary precedents.

    1. Or just Eustace the Monk-style robbing people for money.

    2. One of my favorite "hardcore medievalist rpg" products is that Robin Hood sourcebook put out for Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero so yes most definitely.

      In fact I've noticed a distinctly large amount of PCs in both playtest campaigns who go through the Bandit vocation tree.

    3. I love the new name, which for me evokes both the mafioso lords and the idea of a peasant rebellion one day, a religious hysteria the next and a shining tournament after (or perhaps all on the same day).

      I studied medieval history, so I am so down for this, and what I'm really looking forward to are pages and pages of random tables that evoke the take(s) you want on the Middle Ages. Name tables will be a big help, since I've seen players struggle with appropriate names to keep some level of immersion. And the final form of your tables.

      I guess my only criticism (and this may just be this particular blog post) is that I would love to see examples of campaign styles and themes that really grab the reader in their specificity but let the imagination flow. Day After Ragnarok by Ken Hite (now that's an evocative writer) has these and they're excellent (each one is given a Conan name), even if I'm not too big a fan of where he thinks most readers will go with that setting and who they'll pick as heroes.

  4. Good stuff. Reminds me of all the ideas that started popping into my head when I played Crusader Kings.
    Which campaign style might cover PCs who are minor officials working for the local noble? Would there be historical support for something like investigation/policework... who gets sent out when some creature wanders out of the woods and starts eating livestock? Plus added potential for courtly intrigue/plotting/melodrama.

    1. Not terribly surprisingly perhaps I play an unhealthy amount of CK2 these days.

      That's not too far off from the Local Sandbox and what's happening in the playtest groups.

      Generally I write a news update before each session that lays out what's known of NPC machinations, big ticket events and quest-like missions. Generally it's worked out pretty well as players pick and choose what whirling parts of the sandbox they want to deal with (though things still happen if they don't intervene like this :

  5. Is there forum or official page for this project? I have the G+ page "followed" but there seems to be little at that page.

    1. We are in a heavy writing/revision phase (we're already up to version 0.7 in less than two months!), but expect to see more of that.

      Most of the discussion work is being done in two circles directly on G+ (look for my circle request).

  6. I have nothing constructive to contribute but just would like to say that i love, love, love this

  7. I'll have watch this for ideas for when I resume my campaign in the summer. I'd already determined to head in this direction, but in a Classical rather than a medieval setting.

  8. A warband wandering across Europe, sacking villages and ruins en route to the Crusades picaro-style sounds like a truly incredible campaign.

  9. as someone who wrote a book rebutting the idea of feudal anarchy, I have to laugh. Still, it does make for an evocative game title

    1. he and I have reached a detente of sorts, at least when we meet at conferences. He moved his 'revolutionary' moment into the 12th century, and I've moved on to other topics. The debate in Past and Present which followed Bisson's article is well-worth reading, with contributions by White, Reuter, Barthelemey, and Wickham